Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Corpse Bride (Burton, 2005)

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride follows the pattern of so many other Burton projects that have come before it: inventive visuals, mildly amusing quirk, woefully unsatisfying narrative. The first fifteen to twenty minutes in which we are introduced to the film’s universe are the best. I laughed with joy at these fantastic creations with their pale, dour faces and their ridiculously proportioned bodies. It amused me to see that even the horses galloped along on long, thin legs and that the vicar’s neck was pushed forward at a dramatic angle, as if in a state of permanent accusation. Indeed, if we were only to go by still photographs, we might think that Corpse Bride was one of the greatest animated features ever made. The film’s look is to be highly commended.

Unfortunately, Burton and company have saddled this film with an utterly pathetic screenplay that barely has enough content for a third of the film’s already slight runtime. Victor has a really bad wedding rehearsal and then goes off to the dark and creepy woods to practice his vows where he accidentally places the ring on the finger of a female corpse whose hand just happens to be sticking out of the ground. She whisks him away to the land of the dead where death is a cabaret, old chum, complete with endless mortality jokes and a few musical numbers composed by Danny Elfman. Meanwhile, back in the land of the living, a cad of remarkable callousness™ is putting the moves on Victor’s intended wife. Those who have never seen a film before will be SHOCKED by the film’s ending in which Victor either marries the living girl or the corpse and the cad of remarkable callousness™ either gets his comeuppance or goes on doing mean things for the rest of his life.

In the leads, Burton has cast three of the finest film actors of the day in Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Emily Watson. Surely, this kind of firepower could have been put to much better use, but Burton is fortunate in that they are able to prevent the proceedings from getting unbearably dull, even as we feel the palpable shift from wonder to tedium. Elfman’s songs don’t help things either. As an orchestral composer and even as a pop songsmith, I enjoy his work; however, there is something about his ‘showtunes’ with their high-pitched toddler-voiced choruses and their in-your-face zaniness that I find entirely grating. Corpse Bride has a few moments of awe-inspiring greatness – the bride emerging from the ground, Victor being whisked back to the land of the dead – but, on the whole, you’d be much better off playing Grim Fandango.


Tuesday, May 30, 2006

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #25: RICHARD III directed by Werner Herzog

The Plot:

Hey, remember that civil war England had way back in the King Henry VI trilogy? The one with the roses? OK, that’s all been sorted out now and when the dust settled, it was not Richard, but his older brother, Edward, who claimed the throne. Unfortunately for Edward, his kid brother is like a Machiavellian wet dream. He’s determined to take control of the throne by any means possible. In one of the most fascinating of all Shakespeare scenes, Richard successfully woos the woman whose husband he has previously murdered. Later, he helps his older brothers along to early graves, offs the Lord Chamberlain and even whacks Edward’s young boys who are technically in line to succeed the throne before Richard. When his marriage is no longer politically useful, guess what, he kills his wife too. Eventually, pretty much everybody who’s not already dead has turned against Richard and he is killed on the field of battle – significantly sans horse.

Why Herzog?

I’ve seen three film adaptations of Richard III and two of them are quite good. Most recently, Ian McKellen starred in a version that successfully transferred the historical events to a hypothetical 20th century fascist regime. Forty years prior, Laurence Olivier’s Richard set the bar by which all later stage and screen Richards would be measured. The third adaptation was the 1912 silent version that is remarkable not so much because it successfully engages the viewer, but simply because it exists at all. There is also Pacino’s adaptation/documentary, Looking for Richard, that has its moments but is incomplete as an adaptation and unenlightening as a documentary. There is not a pressing need for another film of Richard III, but if a new version were to be made, I’d like to see one that steers away from the polished, slick feel of the 1995 film. It worked very well in that particular case, but a director attempted to follow in its footsteps would run the risk of creating something redundant I fear. For a very different, but equally compelling Richard III, I would turn to Herzog, who with films like Aguirre the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde, has created fascinating portraits of uncompromising ambition. Indeed, Klaus Kinski’s character in Aguirre could be a distant relative of Richard with his peculiar gait and his ruthless tactics. Alas, Kinski is no longer with us; but how cool would it be to see Herzog take an actor like Tim Roth, for example, and take a shot at one of history's most unusual villains? It would be a grittier, more naturalistic Richard and one that would take the time to go beyond the surface and paint a detailed, textured portrait of the crippled king. Herzog’s films always feel just a little bit out of control, like he's discovering the film as he shoots, and it’s that sensation that gives them unusual life and energy. His glory days are in the past perhaps, but his recent Invincible was enough to convince me that he still has a few good films left in him. He also has an unusual sense of humor that I think would be just great for bringing to life Richard’s eccentricities. All he would need was a way to somehow incorporate a large group of small animals to swarm around Richard on the battlefield.

Herzog films I have seen:

1. Aguirre, the Wrath of God ****
2. Stroszek ****
3. Grizzly Man ****
4. The Enigma of Kasper Hauser ****
5. Woyzeck ***1/2
6. Fitzcarraldo ***1/2
7. Nosferatu, Phantom der Nacht ***1/2
8. God's Angry Man ***1/2
9. The Wild Blue Yonder ***1/2
10. Invincible ***1/2
11. Cobra Verde ***
12. How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck **1/2
13. Even Dwarfs Started Small *1/2
14. Heart of Glass *

Monday, May 29, 2006

Mother Joan of the Angels (Kawalerowicz, 1961)

Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels is a curious film that seems to set itself up as a ‘nunsploitation’ horror film and eventually settles into a fairly rudimentary theological discussion concerning the nature of evil and its purpose in God’s universe. Perhaps the following statement will reveal more about the viewer than it will the work in question, but I found it to be much more engaging operating in the former mode than the latter. The plot concerns a 17th century clergyman and his attempts to rid a convent of the demons that have caused the blessed virgins to engage in bizarre behavior, such as scurrying about like vermin at the splash of holy water. The unfortunate Mother Joan seems to be the focal point of the satanic possession, holding eight different devils within her. Our introduction to her character and the later attempts to exorcise the demons turn out to be the film’s highlights. Lucyna Winnicka is excellent in the role, toying with the faithful using a knowing smile, rolling all over the floor and using other physicality to convey the tumultuous goings-on within her body. Unfortunately, just when the film is starting to heat up, it veers off in another direction, engaging in tedious religious discussion that is especially hard to take seriously given the antics that have preceded it. Still, Kawalerowicz’s film, which is beautifully shot and well-acted, may prove to be more palatable to some viewers. For me, it worked only when it strove to amuse and titilate, not when it attempted to enlighten.


Saturday, May 27, 2006

Twentynine Palms (Dumont, 2003)

Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms is the kind of arthouse film that makes people hate arthouse films. It spends the first hundred minutes of its runtime testing the viewer’s patience and then follows that up with fifteen minutes that insult the viewer’s intelligence. Like Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny, it is structured around a trip through the desolation of the American west. There are copious shots of travel and cars disappearing off into the distance and empty, lonely roads. I’ve seen these shots numerous times before, mostly at the conclusion of family vacations where we would watch our homemade video only to discover that somebody let Dad spend a little too much time in charge of the camcorder. What those videos didn’t have however and which Twentynine Palms does have are numerous scenes in which a young couple stops for desperate, often ugly sexual release. Far from being gratuitous, these scenes are absolutely necessary to Dumont’s vision because they are pretty much the only thing that keeps us awake in between the tiresome quest for naturalism.

Twentynine Palms
is a film that would not dare stoop to anything so bourgeois as conventional exposition, humor, or coherent human interaction. Rather, it is a film that begs with every inch of its empty soul to be interpreted as metaphorical or existential. While these interpretations are possible, they don’t make the film much more deep and they certainly don’t make the experience of watching it any more tolerable. Though Dumont makes every effort to withhold information about his central couple from us, we are able to pick up a few things. We learn that she is fearful of something in her past, that the two haven’t known each other long, that they are making an attempt to escape human interaction, that he really likes to have sex and would someday like to see her pee. The couple only has one meaningful interaction with other human beings throughout the course of the entire film, a moment of ugliness offered without explanation and mostly free of dialogue. However, Dumont saves his most laughably tasteless excess for the film’s climax, a scene that rivals High Tension in its potential for causing permanent brain damage. I suppose Dumont hoped that his film would be open-ended and able to support metaphorical interpretation; however, with the spare, unimaginative stimulus that he offers us, I have no idea why anyone would bother doing the heavy lifting.


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Ballad of a Soldier (Chukhrai, 1959)

An unabashed and utterly effective piece of wartime melodrama, Grigori Chukhrai’s Ballad of a Soldier is a film that surprises us by working in essentially the opposite direction of what we expect. This is a war film with a young soldier as its protagonist that spends only about two minutes of its run-time actually on the battlefield. Early on, we see Alyosha, a private on the front lines improbably elude an onslaught of enemy tanks and then disable two of them with a found piece of weaponry. This is especially remarkable as Alyosha is a mere signalman and not a highly skilled combatant. As a reward, he asks not to be decorated, but rather to be allowed to return home to visit his mother so that he may mend her patched roof. His request is so charming (and perhaps amusing in its innocence) that his commanding officer agrees. Throughout the rest of the film, we watch as Alyosha makes his way home, traveling mostly by train through the land of his birth, and observe the way in which ordinary life has been interrupted.

The true strength of Ballad of a Soldier is the way it makes its point not through overt politics - a tool that was likely not available to Chukhrai at the time – nor through lengthy philosophizing or depictions of grand human misery, but rather through a careful observation of the little things that get interrupted in times of war. A marriage falls apart … new love is not allowed to flourish … those who have no reason to lie do so out of fear. Individually, each of these things may seem like relatively insignificant changes; yet, Chukhrai demonstrates how all of these things are evidence of a rupture in our ability to pursue that which makes us human. It is our right as human beings to be allowed to fall in love, to tend to our home, to hug our mother. In war, these things can become elusive privileges. Ballad of a Soldier unfolds beautifully, getting more and more emotionally involving as it progresses. It does not celebrate war, but does celebrate those who are forced to participate in it. After the film’s first scene, we know (to a certain extent) how the film will end and yet this knowledge does not stop the conclusion from being an absolute heartbreaker. Ballad of a Soldier ends with a variety of matters unresolved, and relationships in disarray and with a simple question for the viewer.



A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Play #24: RICHARD II directed by Terrence Malick

The Plot:

Oh, hey, look, it’s another unpopular English king. Richard II rose to the throne at a young age and never really had a chance to, like, find himself. You know just take a year off and hitchhike across the country. Instead, he was thrust into a full-time job with lots and lots of overtime. But one way to travel when you’re the king is to invade another country! Ireland seems as good a choice as any, but when he’s away, Henry Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) takes the opportunity to invade England. The people are so tired of Richard's aloofness that Henry finds he is warmly embraced rather than repelled. Henry takes the throne without so much as a skirmish and Richard gets knocked off before he can make it down to the unemployment office.

Why Malick?

Not to be confused with the much more aggressive, visceral play about the hump-backed king, Richard II is notable for having some of the most beautiful poetry to be found in Shakespeare. Richard is strangely disconnected from the events surrounding him for most of the play as he engages instead in various philosophical musings. Indeed, the play works as a compelling counterpoint to Shakespeare’s other histories because the joys that the author provides come in a completely different manner and at a completely different pace. There’s not much plot to found in Richard II, but there is plenty of introspection and metaphor. Malick’s a great fit here, I think. Most film adaptations of Shakespeare attack the text in order to bring it to life for a modern audience. Often, Shakespeare’s more flowery, metaphorical language is cut in favor of streamlining the plot down to what will be easily understandable. It would be fun to see a film in the spirit of Days of Heaven or The Thin Red Line that takes a little more time and lingers over the beauty of Shakespeare’s language. The minimal plot would give one of the cinema’s true poets an opportunity to turn Richard II – Shakespeare’s quiet, compelling historical meditation – into a film that allows us to appreciate yet another aspect of the playwright’s versatility.

Malick films I have seen:
1. The Thin Red Line ****
2. Days of Heaven ***1/2
3. Badlands ***

Dolphins (MacGillivray, 2000)

Greg MacGilivray’s Dolphins certainly delivers the goods on its most important mission, namely to take advantage of the IMAX format in order to provide us land lovers with a rare up-close peek at some of the world’s most remarkable creatures. Dolphins, we are told, are second only to humans as far as intelligence is concerned. Their good nature and relative lack of aggression make them nearly impossible to resist. I think it is fair to say that someone who does not take joy in the simple pleasure of observing dolphins likely does not take pleasure in much else in life. In addition to merely providing glimpses of the dolphins in their own element, MacGilivray’s film seeks to make us aware of the danger these creatures face when confronted with mankind’s pollution and other negligence. To be sure this is a worthy sentiment, although I noticed that the IMAX format makes it difficult to convey anything but the broadest of emotional pleas. As viewers, we are simply so deeply immersed visually into the world on the screen that we struggle to process aurally. Even more than usual, our critical defenses are crippled as we gleefully accept the wondrous sights. Dolphins good. Fire bad. Something like that.

While the film scores points for its beautiful underwater photography and having its heart it the right place, it loses them for occasionally falling into lovestruck goofiness, as when one of the scientists looks wistfully out the window, daydreaming about his friend Jojo and the great times they had together playing with the toy fish. In their eagerness to demonstrate that dolphins are capable of feeling emotions, the filmmakers at times create unintentionally funny moments that are reminiscent of the of a cheap romance novel. And do we really need to see the communication of dolphins compared to the hand jives of urban youths followed by the assertion, “Maybe dolphins aren’t so different from us after all.” I’m not sure which species of mammal that insults more. Perhaps both equally. Still, I found the film to be a wholly appropriate and entertaining family film that provided an opportunity for discussion about mankind’s relationship and responsibility to the creatures with which it shares the Earth.


Monday, May 22, 2006

Cowards Bend the Knee (Maddin, 2003)

Originally produced as a part of an art installation and viewed in ten separate peephole booths, Cowards Bend the Knee is, appropriately enough, the most overtly sexual Guy Maddin film that I have seen to date. It might also be his best, at least as far as his full-length features are concerned. The ten chapters have now been put together on DVD and, along with his earlier ballet work, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary, make a compelling argument that Maddin is at his very best when he is freed entirely from spoken dialogue. A strange tale of treachery, paranoia, sex and ice hockey, Cowards centers on a man who is also called Guy Maddin, revealing the deeply personal nature of the events played out underneath a thin mask of absurdity. For reasons too complex to explain in brief, Guy is tricked into believing that his hands have been removed and replaced with those of a dead man. With this mistaken belief, he allows his hands to commit acts of both violence and sexuality, all the while seeming to believe he is driven by a force beyond his control. At just over an hour, Cowards is a perfect blend of all the best elements of Maddin: his remarkable editing techniques, his mastery of silent film conventions, his disarming kinkiness and his tendency to mix campy humor with a dash of grand guignol. I particularly enjoy the way Maddin takes snippets of an actor's performance or even a simple cutaway and uses repetition to convey the raw essence of a moment in a way that reaches beyond what we normally think of as language. Maddin’s film might be too arty even for the arthouse; however, it is evidence of a deeply gifted filmmaker who has learned great lessons from his past experiments and is now capable of creating powerful artistic visions that, to my knowledge, do not resemble the work of any other contemporary filmmaker in the slightest.


NOTE: Be sure to listen to Maddin’s audio commentary which is both thoroughly insightful and intimate.

Kamikaze Girls (Nakashima, 2004)

Based on the manga by Nobara Takemoto, Kamikaze Girls lives up to the promise of its title, but that’s not necessarily a compliment. Indeed, the film ploughs ahead with a reckless abandon that is certainly admirable in its sense of commitment; however, little consideration is given to the film’s eventual impact on the viewer beyond making the occasional explosion. Like a kamikaze, the film may impress as it hurtles by, but ultimately it ends in little more than a chaotic mess. Fortunately, it is still intermittently fun along the way. In fact, for the first fifteen minutes, the film looks to be shaping up to be a cult classic, a sort of Japanese Amelie if you will. Director Tetsuya Nakashima grabs our attention with a wonderfully staged traffic accident and an attractive protagonist who wishes that she had been born in the French Rococo period, a time known for its obsession with ornate fashion. In the early part of the film, we are quickly introduced to the young girl and see a recap of the critical moments in her life that have made her what she is. These include several delightfully comic moments, such as pregnant woman canoodling with her gynecologist … during labor. Like Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Nakashima uses quick edits, extreme close-ups, dazzling colors and cartoonish performances to immerse the viewer in sugary sweet delight. However, once it slows down and settles into a more conventional mode of storytelling, the film’s insubstantial nature begins to show and quickly our attention wanes. The supremely lackluster plot involves the frilly protagonist developing a friendship with a spittin’ head-buttin’ motorcycle ridin’ member of a local female gang. There’s talk about uniting all the female gangs, but you probably won’t care much about that. Nor will you really care much about the young girl’s attempt to achieve success as a seamstress for her favorite fashion designer. Mostly you will await the flashes of style and occasional inspired sight gag that hint that the director may be capable of producing a much more compelling film in the future.


Friday, May 19, 2006

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #23: PERICLES directed by Tim Burton

The Plot:

If you want to marry the king’s daughter, you’ve really got your work cut out for you. You see, the king and his daughter have a special bond. A very special bond. To paraphrase the famed Canadian chanteuse, a bond with benefits. In order to protect his royal perversity, the king has constructed a riddle that must be answered by all potential suitors in order to gain his daughter’s hand. The penalty for answering incorrectly is death. When Pericles is brave enough to take the challenge, he solves the riddle, but discovers why none before him have given the correct answer – it reveals the true nature of the king’s relationship with his daughter. Wisely, Pericles skips town, but he’s marked for death. You would think that he would know enough to lay low, but when he finds out about a king who is going to give away his daughter to the winner of a jousting contest, he enters. What are the odds of running into two incestuous father-daughter relationships, right? This contest turns out much better than the last. Pericles is victorious and claims his bride. However, she has the misfortune to give birth on board a ship during a raging storm. What is worse, she is mistaken for dead and thrown over the side of the boat in a chest! Father, mother and daughter are separated and, shortly thereafter, miraculously reunited.

Why Burton?

Pericles is a strange play that leaps from location to location and tells the story of a man who is eventually rewarded because he remains virtuous in the face of hardships. There is a sort of bizarre logic to Pericles with its unlikely twists and turns that is reminiscent of a dark fairy tale. There is also the noble hero who must be tested in order to prove his worth and be joined with his beloved. There is the child, unaware of her lineage, who discovers her parents under unlikely circumstances. There are good and evil kings, treacherous voyages by ship, mysterious riddles and even pirates. What the play needs is a director who can dazzle an audience with visuals and create an interior logic that will help compensate for the free-wheeling plot. It also needs someone who can give proper weight to the mild unpleasantness we experience on the way to an absurdly optimistic finale. Burton’s films have a kind of ‘surface’ darkness that seems to me appropriate for Pericles. It’s a PG-13 level of darkness. Though some of the events described above might sound disturbing, they exist within a world that has little to do with reality and so they should be addressed in the cushioned, distanced way that fairy tales often approach their darker themes. I must admit to being somewhat less enthusiastic about Burton’s body of work than most. Truth be told, I find his films to be frequently shallow and unsatisfying. But with Ed Wood, I’ve also seen him knock it out of the park and deliver an unusual blend of bizarre humor and genuine emotion. I’m playing a hunch here and guessing that the visual flair and quirky romanticism that is found in his best work, as well as his knack for creating unusual, endearing characters, would be a good match for a play that is also uneven, but strangely compelling.

Burton films I have seen:

1. Ed Wood ****
2. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure ***1/2
3. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ***1/2
4. Edward Scissorhands ***1/2
5. Beetle Juice ***
6. Big Fish ***
7. Batman Returns ***
8. Batman ***
9. Sleepy Hollow **1/2
10. Mars Attacks! *
11. Planet of the Apes *

Friday, May 05, 2006

When the Wind Blows (Murakami, 1986)

When the Wind Blows, a Britsh animated film that tells the sad tale of an elderly couple preparing for a nuclear attack and then attempting to survive in its aftermath, is a work that deserves to be mentioned in the same conversation as Grave of the Fireflies or The War Game. Like Fireflies, it demonstrates the devastating impact that war can have on ordinary people even if they survive instant annihilation. Like The War Game, it finds the darkest of humor in how ill-equipped human beings are to handle the consequences of the weapons they have created. Living in relative isolation in their country home, the elderly couple learns through government pamphlets and radio broadcasts that Britain is in imminent danger of receiving an incoming Soviet attack. The husband prides himself on being up-to-date on the current changes in modern warfare and in building an appropriate makeshift fallout shelter within their home. The wife is more concerned with him damaging the walls and making sure that she will be able to leave the shelter to have bathroom breaks with an appropriate amount of privacy.

What is remarkable and heartbreaking is that although they face the prospect of nuclear holocaust, their banter remains at the same generally optimistic level. After all, they survived the Nazis and bombing during World War II. This time won’t be much different, right? Just keep the chin up and everything will be all right. These are such good-hearted people that we cannot imagine them being subjected to anything as horrifying as a nuclear bomb. And yet the bomb does come. This happens early enough in the film that I am not spoiling much by revealing this piece of information. And although the couple continues to believe that things will be just like in the good old days and Britain will be back on its feet before long, it soon becomes clear to us that their world has essentially become a graveyard. With extraordinary patience and determination they wait for assistance or any sign of life as the effects of nuclear radiation set in.

By using animation, When the Wind Blows achieves an appropriately surreal tone while never allowing the seriousness of the subject matter to be sugarcoated. The voiceovers by Peggy Ashcroft and John Mills are first-rate, establishing a believable relationship between the couple and never descending into hamminess. The repetition of the husband’s dialogue used in order to achieve an uncomfortable level of absurdity may test viewers’ patience; but, taken as a whole, this is most certainly an unusual and satisfying film (not currently available on DVD) that is worth making the required effort to seek out and find.